Like many other aspects of society under capitalism, the automobile appears to be a standard part of life; something that has been and always will be with us. Learning how to drive and acquiring a car are viewed as obligatory stages of our lives, through which we all must progress in the process of growing up. Almost everyone has a car. Many households even have two or three.
I hate cars, and I always have. However, due to the nature of my job, I am required to own a car, and I hate having to own one. I hate the impact mass car ownership has had on society: motorways clogged with oversized vehicles grinding by at a snail’s pace during “rush hour”; petrolheads driving at reckless speeds endangering their own and others’ safety; ever widening roads encroaching into the countryside; horrendous pollution caused by the expulsion of toxic fumes; countless road fatalities; wars started by great powers to secure extra resources for oil companies, such as the bloodbath in Iraq. I also detest the impact it has on individuals: people atomised into vehicles designed for five passengers but, more often than not, containing only a solitary occupant; the financial hit people are forced to take to fork out for fuel, insurance, vehicle testing and engine faults; the health effects of sitting inactive in a driver’s seat for several hours a day; the misery of navigating through heavy traffic and the hassle of finding a parking space in urban areas. Most of all, because of an expensive, underfunded and inefficient public transport system, I hate the fact that I have little choice but to own a car.
Our reliance on these bulky, awkward, impractical, expensive, dirty and exceptionally dangerous machines is rarely brought into question. According to the World Health Organisation, cars cause the deaths of at least 1.3 million people a year, a major health crisis by any standards. It is one, however, which goes largely unmentioned. Even without counting the hundreds of thousands of people killed every year as a result of traffic pollution, the automobile is still the ninth largest cause of death worldwide. What an indictment of a supposed symbol of “success” and “progress”.
It was no mere accident that the rise of mass car ownership in the second half of the twentieth century coincided with the demise of public transport. Huge profits for auto companies and oil cartels were there to be made, and cheap, clean public transport stood in the way of that. This is clear to be seen in the United States, among other places. Before 1945, Los Angeles had an efficient system of streetcars, which was later scrapped to make way for cars and busses – all at the behest of General Motors. Since citizens were forced into switching over to private cars, the city now has the dubious distinction of being one of the most polluted in the United States and one of the most congested in the world. Similar processes took place around the world with the aim of adopting cities to the needs of the automobile. Decades of under-investment in public transport have led to trains and busses becoming more infrequent and notorious for their steep prices. Car use was increasingly, and still is, seen as a more affordable and practical method of transport. On a planet that is warming every year, this is a perilous state of affairs.
In 1986, Margaret Thatcher revealed her attitude to public transport when she said, “a man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure”. This was an outgrowth of an ideological dogma which preached that all things private are good and all things public are bad, a dogma which still influences political decisions today.
The automobile is a symbol of everything that is rotten about an ever increasingly nihilistic capitalism. Rabid individualism takes precedence over the common good. Advertising companies manipulate people into believing that consumerism is the path to fulfillment. The planet is destroyed so a few people can make astronomical amounts of money. Wars are waged to ensure our fuel guzzling engines stay full. Through the construction of roads, motorways, traffic lights, car parks, and road signs the auto industry enjoys continuous subsidies courtesy of the public purse – a parasitism that has become endemic under neo-liberalism.
It can be argued that car ownership has, in part, helped to politically shift large swathes of the population to the right. As Guardian columnist George Monbiot wrote: “I believe that while there are many reasons for the growth of individualism in the UK, the extreme libertarianism now beginning to take hold here begins on the road. When you drive, society becomes an obstacle. Pedestrians, bicycles, traffic calming, speed limits, the law: all become a nuisance to be wished away. The more you drive, the more bloody-minded and individualistic you become. The car is slowly turning us, like the Americans and the Australians, into a nation which recognises only the freedom to act, and not the freedom from the consequences of other people’s actions.”
There is nothing inevitable about road deaths, congestion, pollution and all the other nasty side effects that come with mass car ownership. Political choices were made which got us into this predicament. Political choices can get us out of it. Enormous investment is required to boost public transport. That almost goes without saying. Train and bus fares have to radically drop to incentivize people to use these much cleaner, more comfortable and safer modes of transport. Cars should be seen as a last resort, not as an essential to everyday life. They should only be used when travelling to a more remote place not serviced by a much expanded rail and bus system. Cars could be rented from state owned depots when required. City centres should be off-limits to private cars, with exceptions made only for those with disabilities. Priority in urban areas should be given to busses, trams, cyclists and pedestrians. Cities need to be designed for people rather than clumsy machines. Instead of using public money to widen motorways and arterial routes, funds should instead be directed to expanding the rail network. These are just a few steps we can take with the view to eventually phasing out use of the car.
Cheap, safe and clean public transit should not be seen as a leafy aspiration. With rising global temperatures, planetary contamination and carnage on our roads, it should be viewed as nothing less than a social necessity.
This article was published in the Morning Star